The Wall Street Journal Is Probably Not Red-Faced

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Last summer, I posted on an ad in the New Yorker sponsored by the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism in which a string of Chinese characters was inverted mirror-fashion: "Masschusetts is red(-faced)", 6/5/2009.

When I saw this photograph in the Wall Street Journal, I immediately did a double-take and thought that I had caught the WSJ committing the same error (Paul Mozur, "Taiwan and China work on their thesaurus", 8/31/2009):

What is shown in the photograph is the reverse image of the following:  台北富邦銀行, the name of a bank (Taipei Fubon Bank).  Looking more closely, though, one can see that the characters are written on the other side of the glass, and the photographer shot through the glass, showing a man behind the characters, which gives a nice effect.  Thus, the mirror inversion was not the fault of the editors, designers, and printers.

More interesting than the writing on the glass, however, is the article, entitled "Taiwan and China Work on Their Thesaurus," that the photograph accompanies.  The "thesaurus" refers to something called the "Chunghua [i.e., China] Chinese-Language Thesaurus," which is intended to be an online reference work that will supposedly enable the PRC and the ROC to bridge the sizable gap that has developed between the writing systems on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.  This follows on the heels of the recent enactment of the sweeping Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China.

For Annette Lu, former Vice President and a leader of the opposition party, the rush to bring script on Taiwan and in the People's Republic of China closer together raises the specter of political unification:  “When Qin Shihuang (China’s first emperor) established his empire one of the first things he did was to unify the writing system.”


  1. JFM said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 10:56 am

    A question…

    I suppose with the right choice of Chinese Characters, it could have been readable either way.

    I did a googling for Chinese palindromes, but (from a quick browse) that only gave me collections of written phrases that could be read from both left and right, but which would not be readable if mirror-reversed as in the above image.

    Surely there must be collections of "true" graphic palindromes of Chinese writing somewhere?

    (I don't speak/read Chinese so can't look through Chinese websites.)

  2. JFM said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 11:10 am

    I just realised that I wasn't actually asking for palindromes. (Well, not only, anyway.)

  3. Chad Nilep said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    There are a few characters that feature the kind of symmetry I think you're looking for (一、口、田、富、囍) but I know of no "graphic palindromes" of the sort you suggest, nor can I easily imagine one.

  4. JFM said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    It was a very badly phrased post of mine. My mind was too occupied by OTTO (well-known palindrome) so the word "palindrome" got stuck in my head.

    What I was asking for, was a sentence or phrase constructed of exactly the type of symmetrical characters that you exemplify, but one which would produce a perfectly valid sentence/reading also in mirror (not necessarily the same reading).

    So, rather like English NOT (neg) which in a mirror gives TON (weight). It's a more restricted collection of palindromes (if that's even the right term for them) than "Madam I'm Adam", which in a mirror isn't sensible at all (since d becomes b, etc.).

    Ah well, it was the image above that made me think of it.

  5. Debbie said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    The fact that the picture was shot through a door with characters on it seems apropos considering the nature of the accompanying artical dealing with language continuity across a divide. Perhaps not intentional by the WSJ, but I'm a fan of symbolism.

  6. Debbie said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

    @JFM, how about this graffitti in English:
    1. On a hardware store entrance: no tool wow
    on change table: wow I did no toot
    on bathroom door: no boom toot on
    at stock exchange: bid on loot

    These work in reverse; admittedly not well save for the first.

  7. Chandra said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

    Slight tangent here – "on Taiwan"? Is that typical? I realize it's an island, but I wouldn't say "on New Zealand" or "on Hawaii".

  8. Nick said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

    It's a politically dangerous preposition, because it may be taken to indicate that (the speaker thinks that) Taiwan is _only_ an island. (I'm not saying that that is why Prof. Mair chose 'on' over 'in', though.)

  9. Jesse Tseng said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

    I wonder what exactly is going to be in this "thesaurus". I don't see how it can live up to its grand title of "大辭典" (since they haven't started working on it, but they promise it will be on-line by next year). But surely it can't just be a list of correspondences between traditional and simplified characters? Because there are already plenty of free on-line resources for that. Here's how President Ma described it: "它最重要的就是正體跟簡體可以並列,然後雙方用語不一致的,有個對照表" (traditional-to-simplified automatic conversion: 它最重要的就是正体跟简体可以并列,然後双方用语不一致的,有个对照表; English translation: … You are linguist, no? Try to understand). So it's hard to tell how much lexicographical effort is going to go into this project.

    In other news, Taiwan is planning to open a bunch of "Taiwan Institutes" around the world. Which absolutely should not be seen as competing with the Confucius Institutes. Their goals are simply to teach traditional characters and to promote Taiwanese culture. Nope, not threatening at all. In fact they will probably be invited to open some Taiwan Institutes in China (where the government recently reintroduced 6 traditional characters…)

  10. Jacob said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 7:30 pm


    huh? no one has used "on Taiwan" on this page, and it's not in the linked article, either. a quick google search for "on Taiwan" just turns up one example of on being used to refer to physical location with the rest of the "on Taiwan" hits being on as referring to or part of phrasal verbs. did i miss something?

  11. Just another Peter said,

    September 2, 2010 @ 7:38 pm


    The last paragraph of the post says "the rush to bring script on Taiwan and in the People's Republic of China closer together"

  12. Petrus said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 2:38 am

    @JFM: 山本山 A name of a Japanese firm.

  13. paula franklin said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    re Debbie: Shouldn't it be graffito?? Or have we given up on Italian plurals?

  14. bryan said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

    山本山 A name of a Japanese firm.
    山本山 all uses Chinese characters.
    山本 = Yamamoto, a Japanese last name = originated from the mountains
    山 could be "san", or "zan" = mountain

    There's a lot of Chinese characters which have such symmetry: 一二三十木米半車中甲申由干土士, etc…

    Chinese is not like English. When using something like a palindrome, it's usually for phrases or sentences and even occurs in some Chinese poetry in poems called 回文詞. Examples:
    Check here:

  15. Foghawk said,

    September 5, 2010 @ 8:40 pm


    Not Chinese, I'm afraid, but this little story, typed on a normal keyboard, is legible only if viewed in a mirror… Hiawatha at Miami.

  16. JFM said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 9:50 am

    Thanks for all the examples of mirror-invertable "palindromes". I've been trying to compile a small list of English ones, such as like , , , though it ain't easy. But at least by varying font and upper/lower case I get some flexibility.

    Those Japanese/Chinese ones look great. However, would be meaningful?

  17. JFM said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    (Oh d-mn! I tried using angle brackets, so here's my post again.)

    Thanks for all the examples of mirror-invertable "palindromes". I've been trying to compile a small list of English ones, such as "loot-tool", "mood-boom", "told-blot"; though it ain't easy. But at least by varying font and upper/lower case I get some flexibility.

    Those Japanese/Chinese ones look great. However, would "本山" be meaningful?

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